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9 Ways to Guard Against Identity Theft When Traveling

Protect your personal information when away from home

En español  |  When you hit the road for vacation, don't let crooks hit you. Here are nine simple tips to reduce the risk of identity theft.

1. Alert your credit card providers. Before you leave, let them know when, where and how long you'll be traveling. This helps fraud departments stop bogus charges if your plastic is used where you are not — and reduces the risk that your cards will be frozen due to "unusual activity" when you use them far from home.

2. Stop your mail. Or have a neighbor collect it. A full mailbox — especially with bank statements and credit card bills — can be a treasure trove for hackers and identity thieves (and suggests easy pickings for a home burglar). Pick up forms to hold or forward mail at any post office. Also, stop the newspaper, and don't broadcast your travel plans on social networking websites.

3. Weed out your wallet.  Pickpockets love tourist destinations, so take only essential identifiers, like your driver's license, and just two credit cards — one to carry, another to be locked in a hotel room safe in case your wallet is pilfered. Don't carry your Social Security card in your wallet — ever. And there's no need to carry your Medicare card when traveling.  (And no need to carry it on a daily basis on home, either. You'll still get emergency medical treatment if you need it. But you can make a photocopy to carry, blackening or cutting out the last four digits; this way, you can show you have Medicare but you'll reduce your risk of an identity thief getting your Social Security number, which is the same as the Medicare number, should your wallet be lost or stolen. Of course, bring in the original card when you have scheduled medical appointments.) Men, when traveling keep the lightened wallet in a buttoned breast pocket. Women, wear a handbag, with wide straps and locked clasps, diagonally across the chest — and don't hang it over the door when you use a public bathroom.

4. Leave your checkbook home. You shouldn't need it if you have credit cards. Leave your bills and private papers home, too.

5. Consider a temporary credit freeze. A freeze denies access to your credit history, so ID thieves can't open accounts in your name while you're away, but it doesn't stop you from using your credit card. Setting up a freeze through the three big credit-reporting bureaus — Equifax, Experian and Trans-Union — is a tedious job and may cost you money; it's best considered only for extra protection during prolonged travel.

6. Carry a spare. In addition to your real wallet, carry a throwaway with a few dollars and maybe some old hotel key cards. If you're accosted, hand over the spare wallet while keeping the real McCoy. The thief may see money and plastic, and be off and running and so can you.

7. Use safer ATMs. Debit cards are best left at home, but if you need cash withdrawals, ATMs in bank lobbies are less vulnerable to devices that robbers use to capture your card information. Bank lobbies generally have camera surveillance.

8. Be careful with hotel computers. Don't access financial data on hotel or other public computers or on public Wi-Fi networks. You never know what identity-stealing software is at work.

9. Beware of "front desk" fraudsters. A late-night phone call to your room from a "clerk" saying your credit card number is needed again may be a ruse by an ID thief. Ignore the request and call the front desk yourself.

Also of interest: Don’t let your tax refund get ripped off.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.